Catholic Republicans vying for place in history

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Update: This article has been edited to reflect the news that New Jersey governor Chris Christie suspended his campaign Feb. 10.

There are approximately 81.6 million Catholics in the United States, comprising about 25 percent of the U.S. population.

But only three Catholics have ever been nominated to run for president by a major American political party, all of them Democrats – Al Smith in 1928, John F. Kennedy in 1960 and John Kerry in 2004. Only Kennedy became president of the United States.

Currently, there are three candidates with Roman Catholic backgrounds in the Republican field.

Could 2016 be the year that the Republican party nominates its first Catholic standard-bearer? And could America soon elect its second Catholic president ever?

Six Catholics originally entered the 2016 race for the Republican nomination for president. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, former New York governor George Pataki and New Jersey governor Chris Christie have since dropped out.  

But two Catholics – former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Florida senator Marco Rubio – remain in the race. Ohio governor John Kasich was raised Catholic, although he currently attends an Anglican church.

New York governor Al Smith was the first Catholic to be nominated by a major political party for the presidency. Smith ran on the Democratic ticket in 1928, losing to Republican Herbert Hoover, partly because an anti-Catholic electorate worried that a Catholic president would take his marching orders from the Vatican.   

Kennedy, for his part, had to confront similar stereotypes as late as 1960. During a famous campaign speech to Southern Baptist ministers, Kennedy addressed such concerns and implored skeptics to look beyond their biases.

“Because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured,” Kennedy said. “Contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

When Kennedy ran for president, most Catholic voters were solidly Democratic. In fact, 78 percent of Catholics voted Democrat in the 1960 election, according to Gallup. But recent decades have seen a change in the demographics of the Republican party, as many so-called “Reagan Democrats” – working class, ethnic Catholics nicknamed for their swing vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980 or 1984 – are now Republicans.

In 2014, 40 percent of Catholics identified or leaned Republican, and 43 percent identified as Democrat, similar to the national average.

The shifting demographics can also be seen in the change in religious affiliation of the party’s leadership. This year’s 114th Congress includes 69 Catholic Republicans, including former House Speaker John A. Boehner and current Speaker Paul D. Ryan, nearly double the count six years ago.

Two major presidential candidates in each of the past two election cycles were also Catholic – former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former senator Rick Santorum in 2012, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Alan Keyes in 2008.

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio both took interesting paths to Catholicism.

Bush converted to Catholicism in 1995 after losing his first bid for Florida governor, although he and his Catholic wife, Columba Bush, were already raising their children in the Catholic faith. Although he comes from a mostly Protestant family – his father was raised Episcopalian, his mother was raised Presbyterian and his brother, former president George W. Bush is an evangelical – Bush has said that Catholicism simply “resonated” with him.

In December, Bush told National Public Radio that he has “a little Jesus in my pocket that I carry with me and some rosary beads,” adding, “first and foremost, what sustains me is my faith.”

Rubio, Bush’s former protégé, was baptized Catholic as a baby.  But Rubio spent several years as an active member of the Church of the Latter-day Saints after his parents converted to Mormonism. Eventually, Rubio’s family returned to their Catholic roots, and Rubio received his First Holy Communion in the Catholic church on Christmas Day, 1984.

As a young husband and father in the early 2000s, Rubio attended a Southern Baptist megachurch almost exclusively. He now says he attends the Baptist services with his family on Saturday nights and Catholic Mass on Sundays.  Rubio still considers himself Catholic, and each of his four children received their First Holy Communion in the Catholic church.  But Rubio says that he now believes that there are important teachings to be found in all of the major denominations.

John Kasich once considered becoming a Catholic priest, but he drifted away from religion in college. He later returned to faith after both of his parents were killed in a tragic accident. Despite his Catholic roots, he currently attends a conservative-leaning Anglican church in Ohio.

Should one of these candidates win the Republican nomination, it would be the first time that a Catholic topped the GOP ticket. If elected, he would be only the second Catholic president in history.  

Contact Kara Bettis at karab[email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis